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Still Seduced by the Exquisitely Ambiguous?
Of Contestation, Polarization, and The American Scene

by Gert Buelens,
Ghent University

Note numerals thus: {1}
Approximate length of article: 3000 words

Henry James studies today are as vibrant as they have ever been. Yet, no matter how great the fascination with the Jamesian text, a large number of readers cannot get rid of a sense of shame at their enjoyment of it. They feel that reading James is something of an evasion of the real work of the world. If earlier generations located that guilty feeling within the ivory tower that James's formal experimentation offered them, a technically more blase generation has associated its unease more often with the politically ambiguous, or plainly incorrect, stance the Master adopts. This is particularly true with regard to The American Scene, at present one of the hottest texts in James studies. Noting 'the commonplace racial slurs punctuating' that text, Bryan Washington, for instance, has a hard time resisting the book's 'liberal, eminently civilized voice, sometimes sustained for pages at a time, [that] becomes so seductive, so powerful, that we forget (or want to forget) about the racial slurs, the cultural stereotypes ...'.{1} Washington regrets that the primary subject of his book, James Baldwin, succumbed to the seduction and appeared to undertake an 'iterative valorization' of Henry James throughout his work.{2} 'If such writing [as The American Scene's] is representative, symptomatic of James's nativism and of his elitism, then why did Baldwin, by contrast a progressive, bother to read him at all?'{3} Implicitly admitting an inability to come up with a satisfactory reply, Washington writes: 'There can be only speculation here, but ... Baldwin almost certainly gave James the benefit of the doubt'.{4}

A similar sense of embarrassment troubles Kenneth Warren in the course of his engagement with James in Black and White Strangers. While resenting what he feels is undue pressure on the African-American critic to remain dedicated to 'a criticism and politics centered upon ... black difference', Warren does feel a need to confess that, at a 'mundane level, the time spent reading James ... is admittedly time away from the black-authored texts that have been neglected'.{5} 'If we are not to overvalue James's exquisitely ambiguous critiques of capitalism and racism [in The American Scene]', Warren has more recently wondered, 'how should we value him? Why, indeed, should we value him at all?'{6} Sounding as apologetic about his enthusiasm for James as Washington is with regard to Baldwin's discipleship, Warren goes on to offer his personal reasons for 'Still Reading Henry James' (as the title of his piece puts it). They are proffered in a strikingly diffident manner that I want to highlight by eliding, for now, the actual arguments (they appear in the attached footnote): 'Here, all I can do is to say that what makes James of continual interest to me is that ... And while answering this question is not the most pressing political issue of our time... And for those of us sometimes embarrassed by the fact that James has managed to stick around ... nothing more should be required than ...'.{7} This diffidence is in sharp contrast to the terms Warren uses in discussing W.E.B. Du Bois, who

enacts the political drama of the intellect wrestling with the temptation to instrumentalize itself for the legitimation of the prevailing order. He performs for us the difficulty of thinking differently ... [W]e are warned to be aware of how similar our own intellectual techniques may be to those we contest, but we are also able to find some self-justification in our predicament. Our sense of the difficulty of our enterprise also makes it clear why the hard intellectual work we do is 'necessary'.{8}

If with regard to James, 'all [Warren] can do is to say [something]', Du Bois with greater virility 'enacts the political drama of ... wrestling'. Instead of merely chattering about it, Du Bois 'performs ... the difficulty'. Whereas a Jamesian question 'is not the most pressing issue', we do 'contest' manfully when we are under the wings of Du Bois. If James can make 'us' feel 'embarrassed' we are fortunate to find some moral 'self-justification' thanks to Du Bois. In short, with Du Bois we feel reassured that our 'intellectual work' as literary critics is 'hard', as a man's job should be, rather than 'exquisitely ambiguous'.

The terms I have italicized show that there is a distinctly gendered side to the unease some critics register over James. A closer look at The Henry James Review's 'Race Forum' suggests that the key 'political' objection voiced against The American Scene, and Jamesian realism in general, is actually that it is insufficiently masculine, and therefore immoral. Like the seductive snares of a wanton woman, the purple patches of James's irresponsible prose are in need of correction by the critics (if they are not to be guiltily enjoyed by the same). When contributors to the 'Race Forum' seek to redeem James from the charge of 'political incorrectness consequent on [his] failures of racial sympathy', they tend to replicate the gendered and moral assumptions of his censors, attempting to demonstrate that the Jamesian aesthetic responsibly performs serious cultural work worthy of comparison with real, hard politics.{9}

Consider Ross Posnock's 'Henry James and the Limits of Historicism'. Posnock reminds us that for Kenneth Warren The American Scene's 'handling of the race problem falls dreadfully short of the clear denunciations of lynching and mob violence that prevailing conditions called for'.{10} As Posnock comments:

However one assesses the fairness of this judgment, it does carry force -- its stark, obdurate literalism becomes the ceiling against which shatter all analogical arguments for James's openness as a cultural critic (including those found in my own work on James). One can revel in and demonstrate in ever-ingenious ways the subtleties of James's serpentine negotiation with otherness. But Warren's judgment will remain unmoved and unmovable.{11}

The privileged terms in Posnock's gloss perform a yoking of masculinity and morality: a moral 'judgment' regarding James's silence in the face of racist violence need not be considered in the light of 'fairness' but of 'force'. That is to say, the critical assessment of James's silence on (undesirable) violence itself becomes a form of (desirable) violence: it 'shatter[s]' 'arguments', it opposes to any attempt at 'negotiation with otherness' the 'unmoved and unmovable' violence of 'stark, obdurate' power. It is striking how easily these complimentary phrases could be associated with the very attitude that marked the lynchers and mobsters which The American Scene should have denounced. Refusing any 'negotiation with otherness', 'unmoved' by the suffering of black people, white autocratic men closed their ears to any liberal 'arguments for ... openness' and were proud to 'remain ... unmovable', applying the 'stark, obdurate literalism' of the lynching pole.{12} In a feminist vein, one could even find the 'literalis[t] ... ceiling' reminiscent of the glass 'ceiling' -- 'unmoved and unmovable' -- that places a patriarchal 'reality check' on the upward mobility of women.

The passage seems to serve mainly as an act of white male contrition. The bracketed aside suggests that the critic feels uncomfortable about having joined the women in 'revel[ling] in ... [Jamesian] subtleties', 'overestimat[ing] the range of James's empathic powers', while all along that work was so '"disappointing"' to black people.{13} Yet, the essay's final paragraph does attempt to undertake a redemption of James from those intractable charges by appealing to such qualities as might stand the test of implacable scrutiny, such Jamesian strategies as even 'Du Bois might have admired and valued'.{14} The American Scene, Posnock argues, 'does possess an "alternate trajectory" ... commit[ted] to immersion, hazard, contingency, and ... this trajectory displays political power and even courage though not precisely of the sort Warren asks for [but] embracing what Du Bois called "a certain tingling challenge of risk" ... Henry James ... enact[s] a pragmatism that turns aesthetics from contemplation to action that cuts against the grain of capitalist efficiency and utility'.{15} Posnock's James is in the thick of the struggle, 'committ[ed]', 'immers[ed]', exposed to 'hazard', needing 'courage' in the face of a rousing 'challenge of risk', manfully 'cut[ting] against the grain', heroically turning mere aesthetics to 'action'. This James may truly assume an honourable place in the fight for 'political power'.

Even when critics are secure in their admiration of James's work and do not feel called upon to defend his political correctness they still tend to discuss The American Scene in terms of a rhetorical logic in which political progress is only to be expected from taking an active stand in a battle over power. For Sara Blair, of 'particular concern ... is James's pursuit of two entangled aims: to contest the nation-building power of emergent mass visual culture, and to create a space of cultural agency ...'.{16} The author of The American Scene is fired by a 'contestatory and deeply social intention', demonstrates his 'performative embattlement', has a 'contestatory interest in the framing of racial and national fate' (270). By the end of the book, Blair claims, James has achieved a 'posture [that] intensifies his contest for the power of producing [part of] America's cultural design' and 'positions himself so as to contest' other designing moves (271; emphasis added). The word 'contest' and all its derivations are chanted as a kind of mantra throughout the piece, sometimes twice in the same line (269), and if James did not exactly take a firm stand on the question of Jim Crow racism, at least he 'position[ed] himself' in a properly radical fashion at a more general level (271). While the emphasis here is less on the hardness that needs to be mustered to succeed on the cultural battlefield, for this critic too politics is clearly the privileged term over aesthetics, as when Blair tries to defend 'James's notoriously aestheticized cultural politics' (265). Responding in the same issue of The Henry James Review to Posnock's challenge that her 'analogical arguments for James's openness' 'shatter' against the reality of his failure to condemn Southern lynchings, Blair admits that '... James indubitably preserves the "literary", the high cultural, as a space of social performance at the cost of more radical attacks on the politics of hierarchy, of race supremacy, of margin and center themselves'.{17} The italicized phrase again underlines the preferability of 'radical attack[ing]' as a means of working social change. The literary can only play second fiddle to the political on Blair's account, which turns out to be not so different from Posnock's once one attends to the way both try to invest the aesthetic with combative rhetorical force.{18}

But what if we could regard the Jamesian literary not as a means of performing at the cost of more radical attacks on a certain politics but as a more profitable way of theorizing and practising the political? As one political scientist, Bonnie Honig, has recently argued, 'the test of democratic theory and politics is not so much their ability to resolve the most polarized issues but rather their ability to relax the propensity to polarization ...'.{19} Honig's book sets out to 'explore the sites, instruments and goals of ... a stealth politics ..., noting how certain sites and forms of political action may work to reinscribe citizenship as a political practice rather than as a (juridical) status' (37; italics in original). As such, she differentiates her project from that of multiculturalists who 'see politics as a way to secure the necessary material and juridical conditions to protect existing [minority] identities .... They seek to establish equal respect for existing groups, to give overdue recognition to previously neglected minorities ...' (38). The James critics reviewed above tend to locate their project within the context of an openly contestatory fight over status. A better James to their mind would have written about black people as full-fledged subjects possessing the same level of consciousness as his usual heroes and heroines. (This is Warren's main point.) And, of course, a better James would have taken a radical stand, aligning himself outspokenly with Southern blacks' rights to protection and equal respect. His failure to join liberals of the time (such as his brother William) in denouncing lynchings becomes for these critics a failure to pass what Honig calls the 'litmus tests that sort out who is with "us" and who is against' (36). What some political theorists are attempting to 'delineate and model' instead, according to Honig, is 'the proper democratic labours of translation and negotiation in order to prevent the development of polarization and litmus-testing' (37).

There is a striking parallel here with the recent work in moral philosophy of people like Annette Baier and Carol Gilligan. Baier's Moral Prejudices has focused on the contemporary (and the specifically feminist) potential of Hume's philosophy, pointing out that, '[w]here, on the more contractarian model [of philosophers like Kant and, more recently, Rawls], morality regulates and arbitrates where interests are opposed, on a Humean view, as on [that of] Gilligan's [woman interviewees], morality's main task is to rearrange situations so that interests are no longer so opposed', in Honig's words, to relax the propensity to polarization.{20} There is, in Baier's work, a clear feminist undertone that such a concept of morality is more readily associated with the traditionally feminine qualities of caring, nurturing, responsiveness, rather than the traditionally masculine ones of lex dura, violence and mutual distrust (necessitating the resort to 'contracts'). It should be clear that such a gentle philosophy does not imply a Buddhist withdrawal from social interaction into isolated contemplation. To the contrary, Baier emphasizes that her view of morality implies 'both an individual and a social task' (70). Whereas an appeal to the individual's discrete 'reason' is central to the contractarian tradition, the qualities privileged in Baier's account exist in a social field: 'What matters most, for judging moral wisdom, are [socially] corrected sentiments, imagination, and cooperative genius' (73). In an essay dealing with terrorism, entitled 'Violent Demonstrations', Baier warns against state violence in response to terrorist acts. Rather, emphasizing the importance of language to human transactions, Baier suggests that we look harder for 'the right tactful incantations for the ceremony of graduation into legitimacy [demanded by terrorists]. History surely can give us useful suggestions for tried and true face-saving diplomatic phrases' (222). Can we tackle 'violence', Baier wonders, by answering it with 'more verbal violence, and more moralizing or meta-moralizing [i.e. by moral philosophers like herself]' (223). But since this is such uncharted territory 'we all, like the terrorist, tend sometimes to fall back on homeopathic cures, and so on mere violence as a response to violence' (223). Are not those who would insist on measuring the Jamesian text by the standard of a 'stark, obdurate literalism' engaging in an act of verbal violence of the type that these philosophical considerations warn against? Calling on James to make a more 'violent demonstration' of his political correctness, they may miss the whole point of his 'tactful incantations', of his expertise at employing such 'face-saving diplomatic phrases' as are so badly needed in the reality of negotiation within democratic societies.


1. Bryan R. Washington, The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995), 116, 120.
2. Ibid., 18.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Ibid., 121.
5. Kenneth Warren, Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 141.
6. Kenneth Warren, 'Still Reading Henry James?', The Henry James Review, 16 (1995), 284.
7. Ibid. The first elided part reads: 'he raises, again and again, the question of what kinds of values a society more democratic and egalitarian than the one he himself lived in might be capable of producing'; the second begins: 'it is clear that calls for the further democratization of our social and political orders often seem to elicit a Hyacinth Robinson-like fear ...'; the third continues: '... a reminder that the production and reproduction of value is never simply a repudiation of the past but rather a critical engagement with it'.
8. Ibid., 283-4.
9. Sara Blair, 'Response: Writing Culture and Henry James', The Henry James Review, 16 (1995), 279.
10. Warren, Black and White Strangers, 113.
11. Ross Posnock, 'Henry James and the Limits of Historicism', The Henry James Review, 16 (1995), 276.
12. Recall Warren's observation that it was one of the insights of Du Bois 'how similar our own intellectual techniques may be to those we contest' ('Still Reading', 283).
13. Posnock, 'Henry James', 276.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Blair, 'Documenting America: Racial Theater in The American Scene', 265. Further page references appear in the text of the present paragraph.
17. Blair, 'Response', 281 (emphasis added).
18. Equally problematical is Mark Seltzer's account of The American Scene in Henry James and the Art of Power. Seltzer seems unable to decide whether the wish to 'disown[] the shame of power' that forms the focus of his book is actually James's or his own. Challenging 'this opposing of art and power ... even on the part of the most politically conscious critics', for instance, Seltzer reiterates his alternative claim in a revealing fashion: 'in my account of The Golden Bowl I have tried to show that desire is not in fact subversive of the "world of capitalism" but is instead constitutive of its power; the novel displays a radical entanglement between the movements of desire and the moves of power' (emphasis added). For Seltzer, if 'desire (the literary)' can be thought of as susceptible to (neutral) movements, power operates in (sinister) moves. 'James's later work', he goes on, 'traces the "positive" and not merely the repressive character of power relations'. Ironically, Seltzer first has to establish that power relations are self-evidently repressive (contrast the distancing quotation marks around '"positive"' with the unmarked 'repressive'), before he can go on to ascribe to James the 'gesture of disowning the shame of power' ((Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 139).
19. Bonnie Honig, 'No Place Like Home': Democracy and the Politics of Foreignness, draft MS (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming), 36 (italics in original). Further page references appear in the text of the present paragraph.
20. Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 70 (emphasis added). Further page references appear in the text of the present paragraph.

Gert Buelens has written Henry James: Style, Ethics and History: A Bibliographical Essay (Brussels: Center for American Studies, 1996) and has edited Enacting History in Henry James: Narrative, Power and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, forthcoming). Comments and reactions are welcome. Send to Gert.Buelens@UGent.be

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